FOR MANY DIVERS AND BOAT SKIPPERS, seeing a rebreather on the boat or, even worse, being worn by a previously unknown buddy, is a scary thought. After all, people die on rebreathers, dont they Theyre dangerous things - everyone knows it.
Rebreather divers dont help matters. With typical divers black humour, Inspiration owners often refer to their rebreathers as YBOD for Yellow Box of Death, and other rebreathers have similarly macabre nicknames.
A natural respect for the unknown coupled with some well-publicised accidents has created the common misconception that a diver with
a rebreather is an accident waiting to happen. What this indicates is that while most divers have a vague idea about how a rebreather works, they dont really know much about rebreather diving.
To put this in context, to many of the non-diving public any deep-sea diving is an accident waiting to happen. How many non-divers have asked you: Isnt it dangerous At least with rebreathers they can get the bit about having oxygen cylinders right.
Most diving safety is about procedures - for planning a dive, for setting up equipment and for when things go wrong. Good procedures dont make a good diver, but theyre a big help. Sloppy procedures are far more likely to be a sign of a sloppy diver.
Richard Bull long ago made the remark that most rebreather accidents have already occurred before the diver gets in the water - its just that the diver hasnt realised it yet.
Pre-dive procedures are a critical part of rebreather safety, and much more extensive than for open-circuit equipment.
Knowing something about the procedures that rebreather divers go through before the dive can go a long way to putting a buddys mind at rest.
The details differ between rebreathers, the owners kit configuration and personal preferences, but the essential elements of these procedures are similar whatever the rebreather. So if you wonder what a rebreather diver is doing with his or her kit on the way to the dive site, here are some of the essentials.

Negative pressure test. Sucking all the gas out of the breathing loop until the crinkly hose collapses (below), then waiting to see if air leaks in. width=100%

In addition to finding leaks, a positive-pressure test checks that the plug-in oxygen sensors in this Submatix rebreather are firmly secured.
One thing a rebreather diver does not want on a dive is a flooded breathing loop. Water in the loop gets in the way of breathing and, worse, reacts with the scrubber chemicals to create an alkaline solution that is not at all nice to ingest or inhale.
Positive- and negative-pressure tests are used to check that there are no leaks in the breathing loop before a dive. The former involves inflating the breathing loop of the rebreather until it is tight and waiting to see if it deflates.
A negative-pressure test is the opposite, sucking all the air out of the loop until it crushes down, then waiting to see if any air leaks in.
A rebreather diver will have performed these tests when assembling the rebreather from scratch, so you are unlikely to see either on the boat.
What you will see as a matter of good procedure is the diver putting a rebreather into a positive- or negative-pressure test while kitting up, as a final check that nothing has worked loose as the boat bounces about.
Which test is used depends on the rebreather and the owner. Rebreathers with counter-lungs inside the casing are easiest to check with a negative-pressure test. Where the counter-lungs are outside the casing, there is a choice.
A positive-pressure test can be performed quickly by screwing down the dump valve and pressing the diluent button.
A negative-pressure test is less likely to get in the way of putting the rebreather on while it is left in the test state. An added advantage is that less oxygen is needed to flush the loop and bring the ppO2 up when the rebreather is turned on.

The display of an Inspiration steps through the self test and calibration procedure.
Nearly all rebreathers have oxygen sensors in the breathing loop to tell the diver (and any controlling electronics) what the oxygen level is during the dive. Some semi-closed rebreathers can be used without sensors, because the constant flow of gas through the loop maintains oxygen levels.
The sensors are like weak oxygen-powered batteries. The more oxygen they face, the higher the output voltage. The associated displays are really just voltmeters calibrated to read partial pressure of oxygen instead of volts.
As with any battery, the sensors age and the output degrades with use. To make sure they are showing an accurate ppO2 during the dive, the calibration has to be checked and adjusted before use.
Some rebreathers allow the oxygen sensors to be calibrated in the breathing loop while the rebreather is fully assembled. Others need to be calibrated before being inserted into the breathing loop.
So, as with the positive- and negative-pressure tests, you may not see the full procedure immediately before diving. Nevertheless, any rebreather that depends on oxygen sensors to function will have at least two displays. They may be identical; they may be a master and a slave; they may be a comprehensive primary and a simpler secondary.
Whatever the configuration, one of the things a rebreather diver will do more than once during the process of kitting up and getting in the water is to look at all the displays, check that they are switched on, and that they all show the same ppO2 within the loop.
It wont be a perfect match, because no two sensors are identical, but it will be within a close margin.

Under normal conditions, a diver will metabolise between 0.7 and 1 litres of oxygen per minute.
Suppose we are breathing air open-circuit at a Respiratory Minute Volume (RMV) of 20 litres per minute.
At the surface this air will contain about 4 litres of oxygen and 16 litres of nitrogen. Of all this gas,
we metabolise just 1 litre of the oxygen, and the remaining 19 litres are breathed out unused and effectively wasted.
At 30m down we breathe 80 litres of air per minute, 79 being wasted. At 50m we waste 119 of the120 litres breathed per minute. Thats a lot of gas to carry just to bubble away.
A rebreather keeps the gas a diver breathes out, removes carbon dioxide, adds a little oxygen, and feeds it round again in a closed circuit, hence the term closed-circuit rebreather or CCR. The APD Inspiration is the most commonly used model.
The part of a rebreather that does all this is the breathing loop. Exhaled gas is stored in bags called counter-lungs. The exhale and inhale counter-lungs are connected by the scrubber canister, which contains chemical pellets that remove carbon dioxide.
The counter-lungs are connected to the mouthpiece by wide-bore crinkly hoses, much wider than normal low-pressure hoses or a BC crinkly hose, so that breathing resistance is minimised.
Somewhere in all this will be oxygen sensors to monitor the partial pressure of oxygen (ppO2); a means of injecting oxygen to make up for what is breathed; and a means of injecting air (often referred to as diluent) to fill the loop as the diver descends.
With all this capability, there is no reason to breathe only air. With an air diluent, a CCR can mix nitrox as it goes, giving the diver the ideal mix for the current depth. With a heli-air diluent (part-fill a pony with helium and top up with air), a CCR can mix trimix as it goes.

Semi-closed rebreather
A semi-closed rebreather (SCR) such as the Draeger Dolphin is a less-perfect but far simpler solution. Suppose we are breathing nitrox 40 on open circuit. In one minute we breathe 8 litres of oxygen and 12 litres of nitrogen, metabolising 1 litre of oxygen to leave 7 litres of oxygen and 12 of nitrogen - which is nitrox 37.
If we save this in a breathing loop and breathe it again, there will be 6 litres of oxygen and 12 litres of nitrogen, or nitrox 33. We could continue re-circulating this weakening nitrox mix until the oxygen dropped below 21%, but that would give us such a rich mix with nitrogen that it would offer no decompression advantage.
So in an SCR, just part of the exhaled gas is leaked and replaced with fresh nitrox on each breath, so that some of the weaker nitrox breathed is constantly replaced by fresh nitrox. This can be achieved using completely mechanical systems, ranging from precision gas-flow jets to variously sized bellows linked by levers.
An equilibrium is reached where the diver ends up breathing a nitrox mix a bit below that in the supply cylinder. For example, by leaking out and replacing 10 litres per minute, our nitrox 40 example reaches an equilibrium at about nitrox 33 in the breathing loop.
At the surface, 10 litres is half of what an open-circuit diver would breathe. But this 10 litres can be independent of depth, so at 30m this SCR would use only 12.5% of the gas an OC diver would use.

Whatever gas mixes you are breathing, from air to nitrox to trimix, if you are on open-circuit and your buddy is on a rebreather you will be breathing different gas mixes, except for a few points in the dive where they happen to coincide. Different gas mixes mean a different decompression schedule, and the rebreather diver will probably have considerably less decompression to do than you.
So what happens when you run out of no-stop time What happens during the ascent Will the rebreather diver shorten his dive to stay with you Will he make longer decompression stops than he needs to stay with you
There is no right or wrong answer. But if you are going to be ascending separately, you need to be prepared for it as you would for any solo dive, and the boat skipper needs to be prepared to look out for two separate divers.

Assembling the scrubber lid of an Inspiration. Divers usually remove it overnight to dry the sensors... width=100%
Inserting the scrubber canister into an Inspiration... width=100%
Connecting the scrubber canister to the lungs to complete the breathing loop.
The chemical reaction in a rebreathers scrubber takes a while to get warmed up and going at full efficiency. As a consequence, either during the process of kitting up, or after kitting up but before getting in the water, rebreather divers will begin breathing off the rebreather for a few minutes before starting the dive.
As part of this process they will turn the gas on, check cylinder pressures, and check the O2 displays several times, to make sure that the sensors and hence displays track the oxygen level as it comes up to the operating level.
They may also make adjustments by pushing buttons or twiddling knobs, depending on which type of rebreather they are using. Its all part of making sure that a rebreather is working properly while still safely on the boat - a sign of good procedure.
As a buddy, what you would need to be concerned about is a rebreather diver who just puts the mouthpiece in and rolls off the boat, missing this procedure out.

The DSV (Dive Surface Valve) of a Submatix. Many rebreathers have a lever to move this, where up is “open” and down is “closed”. It should be closed whenever the DSV is not in the divers mouth.
If the mouthpiece comes out of a rebreather divers mouth, it has to be closed. Normally the diver will take care of this, as part of his procedures. But if you have to rescue him, closing the
mouthpiece becomes part of the rescue procedure.
Leaving it open will result in the loop flooding and a big loss of buoyancy.
While he should have a big-enough wing to cope with this, keeping the buoyancy inside the rebreather loop is always preferable.
The technical term for the entire assembly is DSV, for Dive Surface Valve. To be accurate, the mouthpiece is just the bit the diver chews on. Most DSVs are a barrel design, where the inner barrel rotates inside the outer barrel to bring an inner hole in line with an outer hole, to which the mouthpiece is connected.
To close it, the inner barrel is rotated through 90Â so that the holes no longer line up and are sealed from each other.
It could be done with a lever that sticks out at the front, or by rotating a ring at the end of the barrel.
In either case, you may need to use both hands to close the DSV.
If needed, you can hang on by the crinkly hose.
Part of the CE test for a rebreather is that the crinkly hoses are strong enough to hang on to.

This inspiration owner has clipped an additional pony cylinder to the outside of the casing for bail-out. width=100%
A common modification to Drager rebreathers is to fit a single cylinder with a valve. One tap feeds the rebreather, while the second tap carries a bail-out regulator.
As a diver who is buddied up with someone wearing a rebreather, a concern more to do with your personal safety is this: Where is the alternative air source
You may be surprised to learn that while rebreathers look complete straight from the manufacturer, many come with a minimal bail-out that is configured more for the benefit of the rebreather diver than for their buddy. I am all in favour of bail-out that is configured for me, but
it shouldnt be at the expense of not being able to assist my buddy should it be required.
The one thing that you cant do with a rebreather diver is to grab the mouthpiece from which he is breathing. This would flood the loop and endanger both of you.
So nearly all rebreather divers have a conventional second stage regulator connected up and placed ready for their own or their buddys use. But it is very unlikely to be standard.
It could be connected to the diluent-cylinder first stage, it could be connected to a dedicated first stage sharing an H-valve with the diluent, or it could be connected to a separate pony or side-mount cylinder dedicated to bail-out. There may also be a second stage connected to the oxygen cylinders first stage, something you definitely do not want to mistakenly grab at depth.
You need to know where the AAS is that you can use, how to get to it, what gas it is connected to and how much gas is available.

Lets look at a couple of the common mnemonics for buddy checks. BAR for Buoyancy, Air and Releases. BWRAF for Buoyancy, Weights, Releases, Air and Final Check. The only bit that differs with a rebreather is Air. The rest means the same as it always did.
Once the mouthpiece is in, a rebreather diver will be reluctant to interrupt pre-breathing to take it out and talk. So any talking about kit needs to be done before the pre-breathing starts. After that, most of a buddy check can be done by gestures and showing gauges.
What you dont want at this stage of preparing for a dive is a lecture on how rebreathers work. So what is the minimum you need to know under the Air part of a buddy check
I suggest just keeping it simple and looking at the cylinder pressure for whichever cylinder the AAS is connected to.
Thats the only part of your buddys Air you could ever get to use.

Inspiration with side mount for bail-out.
As a rebreather diver descends the shotline, part of the descent procedure is to pause a few metres down and check for bubbles.
This isnt unique to rebreather divers, as some open-circuit divers also like to do a bubble check before they get too far down. If you are buddied with a rebreather diver, he may do this as a self-check, or ask you to help.
The trick is to know which bubbles are supposed to be there and which are not. At the start of a dive, there will be little bubbles of air trapped under all sorts of bits of equipment that slowly work their way out and bubble up as a diver moves in the water. Is this just air trapped under the rebreather shell escaping, or a genuine leak Or perhaps its a semi-closed rebreather, and is supposed to trickle bubbles out through the exhaust valve.
Even with no knowledge of rebreathers, there are some parts we can all agree should not emit bubbles - the crinkly hoses and mouthpiece, the DIN threads on the first stages, and any of the HP or IP hoses.